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Social justice and ethical nuance

There is a hierarchy of ‘badness’ in the world – there’s no question in my mind that various ethical lapses can be categorised as trivial or profound, even if there might be many cases that don’t admit to easy categorisation. Shoplifting is far less wrong than murder, and shoplifting to feed your starving family less wrong than shoplifting the latest Rihanna CD.

But when discussing some of the hot-button issues of the day – often, these days, social justice or related issues like racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, it sometimes seems that there’s less room for nuance than there should be. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” many times, and that phrase is often a sign that the person speaking is in fact a racist. This doesn’t mean that our endorsements of an overall message can’t ever come with a ‘but’, though.

Emily Yoffe has had to do a lot of explaining of this point in recent days, on the same topic (risk-mitigation versus victim-blaming with regard to rape) where I’ve experienced similar outrage for making the suggestion that any method for decreasing the incidence of rape should be a possible subject for discussion, no matter how unfair it is that some groups (women, mostly) bear a disproportionate burden in this regard. We need to fix that unfairness, yes, but while we do so, we can (and should) simultaneously acknowledge how it might play out in terms of practical solutions for reducing rape.

In the past week, I’ve also been told (in response to this piece, identifying the plagiarism in a blog post on white privilege) that it matters not whether there is plagiarism in the piece in question, because that issue detracts from the main issue, which is white privilege. And, a few racist South Africans have found glee in the columnist in question being caught out, then somehow thought me an ally despite all the public evidence to the contrary.

And such is the intellectually vacuous nature of the blogosphere and social media that people take both of those positions seriously, despite the fact that they are both obviously flawed. This is what treating a particular cause – no matter how just – as gospel does to debate: it dumbs it down to headlines and hyperbole, where the long-term goal of getting everyone to think about what they believe, and why, is done a tremendous disservice.

Yoffe shouldn’t have had to explain her position (even though she did so very well, in the end), and the explanation might not help in any event, because the sorts of misreadings we’re talking about are incredibly motivated, and typically unfalsifiable (conversations about them are a textbook example of goalpost-shifting, ad hominem argumentation and the like).

There is a danger in groupthink (in that it is an obstacle to thinking), and one can agree on a position in a way that doesn’t involve groupthink. Especially when the stakes are highest, and the potential harms the greatest, we should remind ourselves of this. And, allow ourselves to be reminded of it.

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Culture Daily Maverick People

I get (real) mail

It’s been very many years since I’ve received a handwritten letter in the mail (not counting letters from the UCT Registrar, who sometimes prefers to record official business on paper, with pen. I’m afraid I have little idea as to his heuristic for deciding when email is sufficient and when pen and paper are necessary, and in realising this, resolve to ask him that question soonest.) It’s probably been at least 10 years since any other correspondence has arrived in this format, though, so I was quite surprised to find this in my postbox at work today.

Seeing as the Daily Maverick has a real names comment policy, and this was intended as a comment to my column last week, I’ll presume that it’s okay to post it here, before briefly responding. I’ve shrunk the images, so in case you can’t read them, the covering letter includes the question:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

This gave me little indication of what was to come, considering that the question is sensible even if (to my mind) put somewhat hyperbolically. The letter itself reads:

Failed attempt to submit to the Daily Maverick, in reply to Jacques Rousseau’s article on culture.

Our ‘sentient and compassionate’, ‘affirming and inspirational’ culture condones ‘oppressive and restrictive’ attitudes towards those it deems ‘inferior and unworthy’ for questioning its orthodox principles.

A paid-up member of this ‘groupthink’ culture is required to:

  • Replace puritanical attitudes to sex with puritanical attitudes to thought.
  • Endorse strident feminism.
  • Support pugnacious homosexuality (see Pierre de Vos’s bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland).
  • Be sceptically deconstructive (see Richard Poplak’s diagnosis of J.M. Coetzee as a substitute for examining his sensible speech at the Wits graduation ceremony).
  • Excoriate the government but sanctify The People, and increasingly untenable position.
  • Curse colonialism, Christianity, apartheid and big business (modish apocalyptic horsemen, past).
  • Lament racism, poverty, inequality, and unemployment (modish apocalyptic horsemen, present).
  • Embrace multiculturalism while proselytising his own.
  • Hound the carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture.

A tall order, but then virtue was never easy.

To be honest, I have no idea what to make of this. I was hoping that typing it out would make it more clear, but I still have little idea whether Ms Vorster thinks I am either a member of this ‘groupthink’ culture, or a campaigner against it, or neither.

It seems that her first paragraph introduces a dissatisfaction with political correctness and groupthink, and that her letter is concerned with some negative effects this culture could have in allowing for unfair judgements against ‘outsiders’. The quoted bits describing culture are plucked from various paragraphs of my original column, though, where some were descriptive, some aspirational, and some facetious. She seems to have read me as describing an actual and extant culture, which I certainly wasn’t. The major point of my column was that we normally can’t be prescriptive about culture, and that it’s as meaningless or meaningful as you’d like it to be. We can be prescriptive about behaviour, though, and if your culture involves harming unwilling participants, I’ve got no problem with saying that aspect x of culture y is reprehensible, and must change.

If it wasn’t for her covering letter, where she refers to reading my columns “with pleasure”, I’d have no problem interpreting this letter as a rant against lefties, and an appeal for less wishy-washy tolerance of various cultural norms. Because this seems to imply that she thinks me an ally. Fair enough, I might say as a general response to many lefties, in that I hate the soft relativism of not making judgements as much as some of you might do. But then, this doesn’t need to be accompanied by an endorsement of bigotry, as Ms Vorster seems to be demanding when referring to my colleague Pierre de Vos’s “pugnacious homosexuality” and his “bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland”.

Mulholland deserved all he got from de Vos, and more (though I preferred Rebecca Davis’s response myself). To pick up on a few of the other points Ms Vorster makes, I’ve got complicated responses to feminism, in that we’d first need to agree on what the term means. If “strident feminism” entails pointing out the pervasive privilege afforded to men in society, and campaigning to eliminate it, then I’m a strident feminist myself – even though the need for feminism as a special cause can be interrogated, seeing as this particular inequality could be captured in a general assault on discrimination. But if strident feminism means thinking that “The Rule of Men” informs any potential experience, then we speak very different languages (and, live on different planets).

If Poplak’s critique was flawed, Coetzee would – from the little I know of him – be concerned with the flaws, but nevertheless applaud the attempt at a challenging and interesting reading. As for excoriation, I’m happy to excoriate both or either of the government or the people, depending on which of them do or say the most stupid things while I’m trying to come up with a column idea. Of all the horsemen listed, I don’t like any besides big business, which can be good or bad depending on what it does and how it spends its profits (if any). If groupthink means it’s bad to not like apartheid, poverty and so forth, I really hope that Ms Vorster thinks I’m a victim of it.

I don’t embrace multiculturalism. I embrace the idea that people should leave each other the hell alone, regardless of culture, that arguments should be judged on their merits (with cultural longevity or popularity certainly not counting as a merit), and that if we end up agreeing (“groupthink”) it should ideally be because we’ve all considered the issue, and come to the same reasoned conclusion. Maligning our general agreement on something like anti-sexism as “groupthink” obscures the fact that reasonable people tend to agree on what’s reasonable, for good reasons.

As for the “carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture” – it’s little surprise that these categories are responsible for most of our social ills. For much of white South Africa, those conservative, white, heterosexual men wrote the rules, and the rules are bad ones (because they are aimed at inequality and perpetuating privilege). For much of South Africa, the same is true for powerful black men, who dominate through similar networks of patronage. Are we supposed to be blaming the poor for our misery, or the otherwise disenfranchised?

Back to the covering letter:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

That too many people seem to think that complaining, signing a petition, or Tweeting furiously is going to make any difference to anything. If you have a skill, you could donate some of it to a civil society movement. If you can teach, do so. If you have time, give some of that. If you have money, find a worthwhile charity. That’s the high-minded answer. The more banal answer is that it’s distressing to have the same debates, each and every year/month/day, where (sometimes) it seems that nobody is doing any listening at all.

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